Sunday, March 28, 2021

"Heads of the Colored People"

For class on Wednesday, please read Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s story “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology.”  Here is the audio recording of that story. 

(The PDF also includes two other stories that I find especially captivating and brutal, “Belles Lettres” and “Suicide, Watch”; both of these are optional, but I think you will enjoy them if you have the wherewithal.)

My main purpose in lecture will be to give you some tools to name and notice important features of this story’s narration, terms that we will use to develop a fuller description of and argument about the story as a whole.

Our understanding of Thompson-Spires’ narrator will be clarified by some attention to the effect of the story’s densely figured network of allusions.  Though I was tempted to write you a module page that glosses every reference in the story’s pages, I rapidly abandoned that project as too time-consuming.  I will share just a selection here, for fun rather than because you need to follow the threads; taken together, this would give you a sense of the body of cultural references with which the story’s narrator is familiar.

Here’s a link to a PDF of William Wilson’s "Afric-American Picture Gallery" (p. 8) – note that these are prose sketches, not drawings. And here’s a great biographical sketch of James McCune Smith, author of the “Heads of the Colored People” sketches that give Thompson-Spires the title for both the story and the collection as a whole; I couldn’t find this text online, but here's a scholarly article that gives a good sense of it. This is now only very obliquely related to the story, but I can’t resist giving you this link to a book about the eighteenth-century "Lecture on Heads" that forms part of the earlier culture discourse on “heads” – note the fact that we really can’t separate periodical print culture from theatrical performances in a variety of settings.

Flannery O’Connor’s story "Everything That Rises Must Converge" is an important intertext for the story’s conclusion, and so is Donika Kelly’s poem "Arkansas Love Story".  I’ll say more in class about intertextuality, and you can also check out this definition of mise en abyme beforehand if you like (all three references on p. 14).

A few other bits I like: Why the narrator snags on the fact that Brother Man’s birth name is Richard Simmons (p. 6); the 90s song "Say My Name" (p. 11); "Best of Bruh Man" clips from TV show Martin (the “wish sandwich” bit is right at the end).

Finally, two visual references for the opening pages.

Sonic the Hedgehog spikes (p. 1):

Tamaki Suoh, president of Ouran Host Club, the character Riley’s dressed as in the story (p. 3):


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